By: Pat James
Thirty-two years after college graduation and embarking on a professional career that saw her become a partner with McKinsey & Company and lead their philanthropy education practices, it's easy for Rams Club member Maisie O'Flanagan to reflect and think of all the women who helped her along the way.
That, however, wasn't always the case.
While some women she encountered early in her career were quick to offer guidance, others were a "a little bit sharp-elbowed." That, she says, was certainly no fault of their own, given that workplace culture can often make women feel like there's only room for one of them at the table. The higher she climbed the corporate ladder, though, the more she realized how important women supporting women is. And she decided to do so with every chance she got.
So when The Rams Club approached O'Flanagan in 2019 and asked if she wanted to be involved with FORevHER Tar Heels– an initiative to build and inspire a community that champions and empowers North Carolina's women student-athletes – she answered with a definitive yes.
"I think there's tremendous passion behind women helping women and the camaraderie and support that goes along with a program like this," O'Flanagan said. "We all want to help one another, and having the structure, funding and support of the University – and others and alumni – is just terrific. It's phenomenal signaling that women are valued, that female athletes at Carolina are valued."
More than $70 million has been raised through FORevHER Tar Heels initiative in support of UNC's 15 women's sports programs. As beneficial as those funds are, they have shared priority in the campaign with the new mentorship program to connect women leaders with Tar Heel female student-athletes.
That's where O'Flanagan comes in.
O'Flanagan has a lifelong connection to sports – from being a fan and participant as a youth to playing soccer and lacrosse at William & Mary to coaching her children. Her husband, UNC alumnus Tom Newby, converted her to a Tar Heel fanatic, and the two of them have become more engaged with Carolina Athletics through The Rams Club and their funding of a student-athlete scholarship.
The chance to volunteer as a mentor to a female student-athlete was a great point of connection for O'Flanagan. She was matched with Brianna Pinto – a junior and, like O'Flanagan, a soccer student-athlete. Unfortunately, O'Flanagan couldn't attend the initiative's launch event, where many of the mentors and mentees first met. But despite that – and having still not met each other in person because of the COVID-19 pandemic – O'Flanagan and Pinto have since laid the foundation of what they both view as a lifelong friendship.
For Pinto, the relationship that she's formed with O'Flanagan has proven to be invaluable, both personally and professionally.
"Maisie has been super helpful for me because I've been forced to think critically about what I want to make of my life and the steps that I'm going to take to get there," said Pinto, a student-athlete representative on the FORevHER Tar Heels advisory board. "She's helped me craft my mindset, and that's been really valuable to me because I'm thinking two or three steps ahead while a lot of other people are focused on the now. But I want to make sure that I have a plan A, B and C, just in case things don't go as I hope."
Two months before enrolling at UNC back in June 2018, Pinto spoke before the FIFA Congress in Moscow as part of North America's joint bid to land the 2026 men's World Cup. For about a minute, she detailed soccer's importance to her and to the world in an attempt to convey why the U.S. and its neighbors were the perfect choice to host. Ultimately, her message resonated, as it was announced soon after that North America won the bid.
That experience, in many ways, was empowering. It also planted the idea in her head of working for FIFA, something she's spent the last three years working toward through various off-the-field ventures and as a student in the UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School.
As much as she learned on her own about what such a career might entail, Pinto has learned that much more from O'Flanagan. Pinto said O'Flanagan has taught her just how closely the soccer and business worlds are tied. She's also helped Pinto realize that in an organization such as FIFA, in which there aren't that many women, she must assert herself.
While some of O'Flanagan's lessons will pay the most dividends down the road, Pinto is already putting some to use in her role on the U.S. Soccer Athlete Council.
"As one of the younger people in the room and one of the few minorities, I have to use my voice and articulate my point of view in a way that other people can receive it and build on it," Pinto said. "I think that's been a huge growth step for me because in the past I might've kind of conformed to the popular idea."
O'Flanagan has watched Pinto take step after step toward her dreams for over a year and a half. Even then, she still finds herself impressed by what Pinto has done – and what she wants to do.
"I'm just in awe. I think Briana is so terrific," O'Flanagan said. "She's a phenomenal athlete. She's a phenomenal person. I already have just such a sense of her love for her family, how grounded she is with her family and that she's going to do great things. So I feel like I got on a rocket ship that's going to take off, and I'm blessed to be there and am super excited to help her with those contacts that I do have in that world and give her the confidence as she's going into those situations, into interviews, etc. … She's going to be great."
"Plus, I was never that good at soccer," O'Flanagan added. "So, I just bow down to what an amazing soccer player she is."
Pinto's prowess on the pitch led Sky Blue FC to select her with the third overall pick in January's National Women's Soccer League (NWSL) Draft. Due to an NCAA waiver, drafted players can play for their schools in the spring season before joining their club teams. That's what Pinto is doing, with hopes of winning the national championship this spring.
Should the Tar Heels reach the NCAA College Cup – held in May at Cary's WakeMed Soccer Park – for the third time in as many seasons, O'Flanagan plans to be there. If they don't, she'll be sure to fly to Harrison, New Jersey – home of Sky Blue FC – at the first chance she gets so she can finally watch Pinto play in person.
On track to graduate in May 2022, Pinto will keep taking classes after her Carolina career ends. She'll soon have to pass on her FORevHER Tar Heels advisory board role, though. While that might be the case, she has every intention of helping with the initiative as much as possible.
Perhaps that even includes serving as a mentor.
"I'm just so grateful to have someone like (Maisie) in my life because she's been through it all and understands the adversity that comes with doing things that are unprecedented or doing things that are difficult or asserting yourself in a room where there aren't people that look like you," Pinto said. "Also, she set an example for me about giving back throughout that process and pulling other young women and other like-minded individuals along and creating a pathway for them to succeed as well. And I think that's super valuable because within our relationship we can create a network of people who have information that they will need to succeed.
"So, I want to pay it forward and take what I've learned from her and pass it along, because she's done a lot of amazing things in this world and with McKinsey and I want to share that with as many people as I can."
That's the exact sort of chain reaction that O'Flanagan realized she wanted to initiate as she progressed through her career. And thanks to FORevHER Tar Heels, she has.
"I feel honored to participate and have had a ball with the program," O'Flanagan said. "I think it's extremely well structured, well intentioned and well resourced. And the opportunity to work with someone like Brianna who is such a singular powerhouse … has been a tremendous gift. And it's fun. As you get older, it's fun to hang out with young people who are at the beginning of the journey. And if you have a couple of tidbits that can help them along the way, it's fun to share."
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